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Leaving Osh, Kyrgyzstan: An Eyewitness Account From A Former NPR Producer

Two years ago, Raul Moreno left NPR, where he was an assistant producer of All Things Considered, to join the Peace Corps.  He moved to Osh, Kyrgyzstan, to teach English.

As NPR’s David Greene reports, violence has erupted there. Thousands of ethnic Uzbeks have tried to flee Kyrgyzstan, only to be turned away by Uzbekistan at the border.

Moreno was evacuated from Osh three days ago.  This morning, he sent a dispatch to several of his friends and former colleagues, recounting what he witnessed there, and how he made it to Bishkek, the country's capital.

"For the second time in as many months, I find myself behind barbed wire, along with other Peace Corps volunteers evacuated from provinces rocked by what newspapers have called ethnic cleansing," Moreno's missive begins.

Over two days, ten aid workers gathered in safe houses on both sides of the conflict. When our food ran low, neighbors smuggled us bread and tea and refused to be compensated. But others sent rocks through our windows and demanded bribes. And all the while, bands of young, ethnic Kyrgyz, enraged by rumors of students having been raped, terrorized the streets around us. They ransacked Uzbek apartments. They torched markets and restaurants. They burned vehicles, piled them into barricades, and shot at those trying to escape the city. By night, gunfire and screaming mixed with thunderclaps.

Hired drivers, wearing bandanas, brandishing a hatchet and a rifle, were hired to ferry Moreno and his colleagues to an airfield.  For 20 minutes – “20 long minutes,” he writes –- they idled, awaiting directions.

Presently, a dark sedan cruised by, pulled a U-turn, and came back for another look. Inside were three masked men and a Kalashnikov.

This is what the trigger man wanted to know: Were there Uzbeks behind our tinted glass?

"If any of you are Uzbeks we will kill you all," he cried.

No, no, just Americans, said the man with the hatchet.

Show me, said the trigger man.

And so my door was yanked open, and the trigger man raised his gun. For a moment we locked eyes — his glittering, angry, undecided.

"No Uzbeks!" I repeated in Kyrgyz, my voice catching. Then the sedan's engine roared, and they were gone.

In a caravan, behind a tank, Moreno looked at landmarks, and shells of nightclubs and warehouses.

At the entrance to the airport, scores of men approached again, "agitating for weapons and furious about our convoy," he writes.  First, they threw rocks; then, they grabbed guns.

This is it, I thought to myself. What will a bullet feel like?

"I love you," said another woman next to me, to her friend. Both began to cry.

A long volley rang out. But we could feel no pain. By some miracle these were warning shots, aimed at the clouds. Again an engine roared. And we were through.

From a compound outside of Bishkek, replete with Gatorade, wired for cable TV, Moreno has only just begun to contemplate what happened to him, and what continues to happen in Kyrgyzstan:

For some, a creeping sense of guilt has begun to build. It comes in the form of a question no counselor can satisfactorily answer: By what twist of fate did we deserve to escape such carnage, while others perished?

Calls to friends in Osh tell of still more suffering: empty food stalls at the bazaar; snipers picking off Uzbeks from atop Sulayman Mountain; a mother seven months pregnant dying of thirst on a rooftop; a Pakistani student, mistaken for an Uzbek, shot and beaten to death in the street. Although the official death toll stands at 138, locals tell of hundreds already buried and more bodies yet to recover.

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